Sommelier Sees Olive Tree as Keystone of California Permaculture


Theo Stephan never stops learning. The 58-year-old owner of Global Gardens has been producing extra virgin olive oil in and around the Santa Barbara area of California for two decades now.

In spite of all this experience, Stephan attended the Olive Oil Sommelier Certification Program in Campbell, CA, last September. Ahead of her twentieth harvest, she was still hoping to glean more technical information from the course as well as further her general knowledge base.

“The LA Times called me the California olive oil guru,” Stephan told Olive Oil Times. “I thought, oh I like that. I want to be the olive oil guru, so I really want to expand and have more knowledge behind me.”

Stephan, who has written two cookbooks centered on olive oil and the Meditteranean diet, jokes that she was the oldest attendee at the course but still learned a lot. Among her many interests is the olive tree’s role in a sustainable future for California.

“What I really want to do is become an advocate for climate change as it relates to agriculture, particularly in California,” she said. “[The course] provided me with credibility as an educator, which has become increasingly significant for me as I’ve gotten older.”

However, as a self-described flavor hawk, Stephan also came to the course looking out for new oil-food pairings, both for baking and cooking.

“I love creating savory dishes and even baking, so exploring and tasting the different varietals was really fascinating,” she said. “I was [also] introduced to Frantoio and Coratina and immediately ordered some big trees.”

She plans to plant the trees on a corner of her land that she had previously earmarked for more Koroneiki trees.

“The Koroneiki olive is just my baby,” Stephan, the daughter of two Greek immigrants, said. “I was going to put in more Koroneiki trees, but I would love for our farm stand property to represent other varietals and I have room to do it.”

In addition to the Koroneiki, Stephan also planted Kalamata and Cerignola varietals, which she harvests as table olives. She grows Mission and Manzanilla olives, as well, for her monovarietal olive oils.

Along with her cultural heritage and pride in where she comes from, Stephan’s adoration of the Koroneiki varietal is also rooted in ecology. After a spate of unusual weather at the beginning of 2018, many olive growers across the state reported massive losses in yield. The California Olive Oil Council said that this year’s harvest would be 25 percent lower than last year.

“My Koroneiki [yield is] exactly the same [as last year] and that’s why I call them such happy trees. I’m not down on Koroneiki,” Stephan said. “Everything else is down, here in Los Olivos maybe by 10 percent. My other olive groves are probably down by 20 to 25 percent.”

Unlike other boutique producers in the state, Stephan is responsible for the harvest of about 6,000 olive trees, so she is not worried about running out of olive oil. However, she has not begun to harvest yet. She said she will not start until at least the second week of November as she seeks to increase the oil content of her yield.

“I’m stressing the trees out right now by not watering them at all, which I typically do in August,” she said. “I started a little later this year because the fruit was later and I was trying to increase the size. We’ve got the size. It’s all about oil content now.”

“I might even push it out further depending on how much oil I feel is in the fruit,” she added. “It’s been a very odd year, I haven’t seen anything like it in my 20 years.”

In spite of the unusual year, Stephan sees a sustainable future in planting more olive trees and other flora native to the Mediterranean in California. By 2020, she plans to enroll in a local university and begin pursuing her Master’s degree in engaged humanities.

“I was certified in permaculture last year,” she said. “I took an international permaculture course, so we will be doing what we call stacking and planting every inch of this property in something edible.”

In the shade of her olive trees, Stephan will also plant capers, sage and lavender. Her plan is to fill the groves with other, complementary, Mediterranean plants that are also resistant to drought. Along the way, she will start an internship program for local students in order to teach them about permaculture as well.

“We’ll be working with students on the land as well as at the farm stands, so everything from marketing students to culinary and agricultural students will be involved,” she said.

Sustainability is a major issue in her eyes and Stephan wants to get people of all disciplines involved in advocating for it.

“One of the things I really want to do is become an advocate for climate change as it relates to agriculture, particularly in California,” she said. “California is blessed with the perfect climate for these drought-tolerant trees.”

As she continues to branch out toward new disciplines and challenges, Stephan remains rooted in her passion for olive oil. Her first experience with really tasting olive oil (as opposed to merely eating it) came when she was a little girl in Dayton, Ohio.

“My mother was a great baker, but it was my aunt who was an incredible cook,” Stephan recalled. “I asked her why her cooking was better than my mom’s one day, while I was watching her in the kitchen.”

“She took out a pack of Wonder Bread buns and then she pulled down a big tin can with Greek letters on it from which she poured some olive oil into a bowl. She then pulled out the Crisco oil and put some of that into another bowl,” Stephan added.

“She said ‘here taste this,’ so I tasted the olive oil and it was phenomenal. I then tasted the Crisco oil with the bread and spit it out,” she concluded, “My aunt said ‘that’s why my cooking is better than your mother’s.’ ”

Stephan has never forgotten that moment from 50 years ago. Her love for olive oil was forged then, perched at the kitchen counter with her aunt in that old Midwestern industrial hub.

It has since continued to grow and now her love for tasting olive oil is beginning to come full circle.

Next April, Stephan will be flying to New York. She made the same flight last year when one of her oils was awarded a Silver at the 2018 New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC).

“I don’t know if I will enter [this year],” she said. “I do plan to go and participate as an apprentice there. We were invited to do that.”

Stephan has successfully taken two things she loves — olive oil and learning — and turned them into a career. Along the way, each passion has helped grow the other one.

“I’ve got a five-year plan that I’m three years into here,” she said. “I started the business when I was 38 to primarily educate and enlighten people as to the aspects of real olive oil and what it can do for our bodies.”

“I’m really happy with our olive oil production,” she added. “And I really love this lifestyle.”

This article was first published in Olive Oil Times.

“One of the things I really want to do is become an advocate for climate change as it relates to agriculture. California is blessed with the perfect climate for these drought-tolerant trees.”

Theo Stephan